Democrats appeal to history, but senators struggle to sit through lesson

Lauren Gambino in Washington
Photograph: AP

Like students in a high school history class, 100 US senators, confined to their desks for another long day of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, squirmed, stretched and slumped in their seats as the minutes ticked down until the next break. They passed notes back and forth, doodled on legal pads, stifled yawns and laughter, and at least one member twirled a fidget spinner – a gift from the North Carolina senator Richard Burr to his antsy colleagues.

The lesson on day three of the Senate trial began with a primer on America’s constitutional democracy. After methodically presenting the facts of the case against Trump, the managers – a team of seven House Democrats appointed by Nancy Pelosi to present the House’s case for conviction – dedicated Thursday to laying out the constitutional case for their first article of impeachment, abuse of power.

Over several hours, they parsed the framers’ words with Trump’s actions, building their argument that the president abused his power by soliciting foreign interference to benefit his standing in the 2020 election by pressuring Ukraine to open investigations into his political rivals - and then attempting to conceal the scheme from Congress.

“This conduct is not America first,” congressman Jerry Nadler, one of the House manager, declared. “It is Donald Trump first.”

His distinctive New York accent was the only sound in the chamber as he endeavored to convince his audience that the founding fathers sealed Trump’s fate when they determined in 1787 that the executive could be removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

Impeachment, Nadler insisted, is the “constitution’s final answer to a president who mistakes himself for a king”.

As he spoke, pages squeezed between the rows of mahogany desks to replenish empty glasses of water – and, on occasion, to deliver a glass of milk. Meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, sketched an elaborate – and impressive – drawing of the US Capitol in blue ink. Democrats, too, are taking notes. Senator Mazie Hirono told reporters on Thursday that when the president’s defense team claimed Trump was a “man of his word” she wrote in her notebook: “Wow, what a whopper.”

Senator Mike Rounds plays with a fidget spinner handed out to Republican senators at lunch to keep them occupied during the Senate impeachment trial. Photograph: Susan Cornwell/Reuters

Three days into the trial, some senators have grown restless and resentful of the managers, who appeared ready to exhaust the 24 hours they are allowed under Senate rules to make their case. Trump’s legal team will have the same amount of time to respond, before senators have the opportunity to ask questions.

During a break for dinner, Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, fumed to reporters that the House managers had come to the Senate chamber on their “high horse” and “lecture” them about Trump’s alleged wrongdoing in Ukraine. She waved off mounting evidence and testimony that the president withheld military funding to Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election, accusing the Democrats of “hypocrisy” and reminding reporters that it was Obama, not Trump, who refused to provide lethal assistance as Ukraine faced war with Russia.

It was Congressman Adam Schiff, the silver-tongued lead House manager, attempted to soften the sharply partisan tone that has shaped every aspect of impeachment since the House opened its investigation in September.

In a nod to the long-standing rivalry between the chambers, Schiff remarked playfully that it was “extraordinary” for House members to “command the attention of senators sitting silently for hours, or even for minutes for that matter”.

Of course, he conceded, the proceedings begin each morning with a warning from the sergeant at arms that senators are to keep silent “on pain of imprisonment”.

Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who has sat stone-faced during each session, laughed.

But the mood was short lived.

Many of the same Republicans, who for eight years accused Barack Obama of an imperial presidency, smirked and sneered dismissively as the managers outlined the House’s indictment of Trump for abuse of power.

They dramatized their case by showing video clips of testimony from the House’s impeachment investigation and repeatedly using Trump’s own words against him. But so far they have not won any converts.

“We’ve heard the same story. Rinse it. Recycle it. And repeat it,” the South Carolina senator Tim Scott, a Republican, chimed in.

Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, agreed: “The big challenge right now is how often we’re hearing the same story.” He passed the hours by jotting down a list of the “half truths” he says the Democrats have repeated during their presentation.

Related: Impeachment: Democrats say conduct is 'not America first, but Trump first'

Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, asked why the managers are imploring the chamber to summon additional witnesses and documents after spending two days telling them that the evidence against Trump is “overwhelming”.

Democrats believe there is more to the story – evidence and testimony that would further strengthen their case. But the Trump administration stonewalled their investigation, withholding documents and refusing to allow key administration officials to testify, which is the basis for the second article of impeachment: obstruction of Congress.

All it would take is four Republican votes to break Trump’s blockade. But that fight is reserved for another day.

Shortly after 10pm, Schiff rose to deliver the House’s closing remarks for the day, ending with an eloquent appeal that seemed directed at the few Republican senators in the chamber who are “listening with an open mind”, he said.

“The framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter,” Schiff said, the passion building in his voice. “No constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore, and you know you can’t trust this president to do what is right for this country. You can trust that he will do what is right for Donald Trump.”

“This is why, if you find him guilty you must find that he should be removed,” he said. “Because right matters, and the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.”